Ten Tales From Sunset and Fairfax
Coming of Age In L.A.
As soon as Walker Callahan pulled the 1965 Ford Econoline delivery van into the parking lot behind Antonioni-McGrath Flowers in Sunset Plaza he knew that George was blowing Michel in the bathroom. At least that’s how it appeared. Through the opaque bathroom window the shadow movements were unmistakable. This was a first for Walker, though he was an open-minded twenty-year-old. He thought, “This might be awkward. It’s my first day and all. I’m new to L.A.”
As he unloaded the van with the bundles of proteas, Birds of Paradise and camellias he’d picked up at the downtown L.A. flower market, George and Michel emerged from the tiny bathroom, flushed and smiling. George, the image of Peter Lorre, pudgy with one wandering eye, and Michel, a skinny, handsome French-Canadian, were both award-winning floral designers, known all over L.A.’s robust West Side flower industry. The shop regularly placed first or second in the city and had a clientele that was largely rich celebrities, corporate titans, rockers, producers, writers, agents and artists.
“You see us, no?”
“Well, kind of.”
“George, jes look at ‘im. He is such a baby he doesn’t even know what color is the cum.”
Walker dug deep, “At least I know mine is not pink.”
The designers laughed until they cried, then hugged Walker.
“Welcome to LA, sweetie”.
Callahan came from a farm town, 5,000 residents at best, all white, mostly conservative Protestants and all firmly convinced Jesus planned for their future to be corn-fed and federally-funded. An enormous weapons facility sat outside of town, just beyond the strip joint.
Desiccating winds blew dust and tumbleweeds across the prairie and toxic chemicals soiled the sand, water and DNA. Most everyone denied the drawbacks of irradiated soil, air and water, because big science and big government brought jobs, while family members succumbed to leukemia. Politicians knew which side their bread was buttered on and voted like drunken sailors or cathouse clientele.
In a high school of 400, there were no black kids. And frankly, no black residents in this backwater town.
There were a few Mexican-American families who worked the farms, but they mostly disappeared into the landscape.
One Jewish family owned a clothing store downtown and their Levi’s were often only four bucks. They had mod shirts and wide-wale corduroy pants like the Beatles wore years earlier. Nobody thought they acted Jewish.
Walker left home for college and had a black roommate from New Jersey, attended Black Panther and SDS meetings, shut down the college over Nixon bombing civilians in Hanoi and Haiphong in spring 1972 but still felt he had to leave behind the wheat fields and the white bread company town of his past in order to understand much about his world.
In the fall, with fifteen dollars safely in hand, he hitchhiked to southern California, where he knew people, 1,100 miles southwest.
As a kid, he stared beyond the hills and imagined California, a place he had mythologized, knowing only that it was a place other than “here”. Things were happening there. Flowers. Girls. Dope. Revolution.
He hitched the whole first night, slept the second under a bridge in southern Colorado and the third wriggling like an oiled snake among a living room floor-full of naked, enthusiastic, copulating hippies, somewhere in San Luis Obispo, a name he repeated over and over again, like a West Texas Joe Ely tune. He spoke no Spanish, but as he pushed his breath through those six syllables, they took on exotic color and musicality.
Walker was finally in California now.
Mariana was the most beautiful girl Walker had ever met. She had a Spanish surname so he assumed she was Mexican-American, while, in fact, she was Spanish-American, a distinction he had never explored. Mariana was perfect: enormous eyes that he was sure whispered to him, softly zaftig, with long brown hair with blonde streaks from the California sun. Though Walker was not a virgin, he utterly lost his cool around Mariana. She lived in a bungalow on Gardner Street, below Melrose, and operated a business there, dealing in hand crafted wool and art weavings. She was the friend of one of Walker’s cousins. She came around a lot. He couldn’t check his reactions. Mariana had traveled the world, and her parents were in the film industry. She had lived in London and spoke Italian and Spanish. He was smitten.
Walker had tasted guacamole for the first time at a restaurant recently and had bought a half dozen avocados. “How hard can this be?” he wondered, and to impress Mariana, who had come to the tiny apartment on Fountain Avenue, a block from the intersection of Fairfax and Sunset, he began trying to cut into the rock solid fruit. He labored furiously, looking up sheepishly from time-to-time, resorting to a mallet. She watched and smiled, finally offering, “They’re not ripe yet.”
It would be weeks before he could face her again.
As his culinary faux pas faded, the two spent more time together and gradually he relaxed. Alone one evening at the Moroccan-styled apartment on Hayworth Avenue, they climbed up onto the second-story roof with blankets and pillows. Walker knew the city by now and was aware Laurel Canyon was behind them, with dozens of his music and counter-culture idols tucked away, doing exotic and avant garde things. LA spread out in front of them like an electric net stretching to the coast, as they undressed and snuggled into the blankets and fell asleep on the tar paper roof.
Over breakfast the next morning, Mariana shared that she had recently celebrated her eighteenth birthday, vacationing with her family in Guadalajara. Though Walker was only two years older, he turned cold and white, the blood draining from his face.
Mariana said softly, “Don’t worry.”
Walker made a few calls later that afternoon and gradually calmed down.
The Fairfax District was a city within a city. Sunset Strip formed something of a northern border, above which debauchery and stardom ran amok. He’d seen Nicholson exit a Rolls at the Roxy amidst a cloud of smoke, a young woman on each arm. LA’s own version of The Castro District ran through the middle of the Fairfax, along Santa Monica Boulevard, with mens’ body wear shops and sex toy stores and bars along its tree-lined streets. Doug Weston’s Troubadour was further west at Doheny. Walker had spotted John Lennon at an RTD stop across from Tower Records on the Strip when he was shacked up with May Pang, estranged from Yoko for eighteen months, living on King’s Road or elsewhere, but, Walker knew, close by. He heard F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived on the same block. Paramount Pictures Studio was east on Melrose at the foot of Gower Gulch. Mastodon bones bubbled up in the oil tar pits on 6th Street. Ed Pearl’s Ash Grove closed that year due to a likely arson. CBS Television City was on 3rd and along Fairfax Avenue were markets, shops and restaurants like Canter’s and Café Tel Aviv where the old and slow-moving European population trundled their shopping carts, bundled up in long woolen coats, gloves and scarves, despite the balmy Mediterranean weather.
This older population–like a neighborhood transported from Warsaw or Minsk or Vilnius or Prague–pre-dated by decades the newer crowd of artists, actors, writers, dopers, freaks and crazies that called West Hollywood home.
Walker’s favorite place was the Farmers Market, which, though an LA tourist attraction, was the real thing: a working market with a rainbow array of produce, meats, bread, cheeses and delicacies like he’d never seen before. Neighborhood locals efficiently made their daily purchases and returned home, leaving families from Iowa or Bakersfield to ogle the oranges in Bermuda shorts, rayon short-sleeves and second-degree sunburns and hipsters to talk about “taking a meeting” with one another, just a bit louder than necessary, the phrase “my screen play”, or “I plan to direct” heard all too often.
Walker fell into this rhythm too, when he was not working, walking down from Fountain Avenue to Third, buying a few pieces of fruit and a cheese, then walking home. He mainly went to watch the people. It was an intriguing mix. The tourists were silly and carefree, charming in their way, but boisterous and unmistakable. Younger and hipper locals from all over West Hollywood hung out here, lingered, checked themselves in glass windows, snacked, gossiped and talked Hollywood shop with one another.
Fairfax was a real neighborhood and many of the people he encountered knew one another, particularly the old ones, as if they’d met in an entirely different world.
Walker drove the streets and canyon roads of the Westside, delivering flowers, really expensive arrangements that he often walked into ten-thousand square-foot mansions along Sunset and down onto the flats of Beverly hills or up Coldwater or Benedict Canyons or out in Topanga. Every day there was a name on the list from film, TV, rock and roll, the stage or the underworld. “This should be interesting” he thought.
But Walker was part of “the help” and he usually had his own entrance. Even at Hefner’s in the Holmby Hills, after he was let through the main gate, he was shuttled off to the service entrance. No grotto or porn stars for this young man.
But there were exceptions.
Often, he was surprised when the name on the delivery sheet matched the face who answered the door.
On Super Bowl Sunday, January 13, 1974, Walker delivered to Milton Berle (Uncle Miltie) or “Mr. Television”.
While Berle was kind and appreciative of the flowers Walker handed to him through the front door, he still grumbled, “Fucking Dolphins.”
Minnesota Vikings 7, Miami Dolphins 24.
Walker spent four days with Leon, learning how to drive around L.A. and deliver flowers to the rich and famous, the eccentric and notorious, the dying and the dead. Leon was about Walker’s age, twenty perhaps, street-wise, and living a high risk lifestyle hooking on Hollywood Boulevard, Selma, Cahuenga and Cherokee late at night, arriving at work late, hung over, in yesterday’s clothes, often bleeding. George, Michel along with Wayne and Arthur, the owners and celebrity designers, were kind to Leon and they cared for him. None of of them knew where he lived or if he even had an apartment. But he was charming and cute and he knew his show tunes.
On the final Friday of their training together, a delivery ticket came up for Peggy Lee, whom Leon referred to as “Miss Peggy Lee”, every time. Her place was in the hills, just above Sunset and the two arrived at the service gate and buzzed in. The five arrangements were a standing order, delivered once a week on Friday. The job was to place them about the mansion just so. Walker pulled out a notebook to try to capture what went where. Flower arrangements somehow all looked the same to him.
This one for the dining room. This one for the sitting room. This for the master bath and so forth.
The most elaborate arrangement, one so large it was impossible to see where to step as Walker carried it, was, as Leon explained, “for Miss Peggy Lee’s boudoir.”
He’d taken a little French in school but never heard such a term used in real life.
Miss Peggy Lee was propped up in an enormous bed with dozens of pink and red pillows, surrounded by men in suits and maids. The room was deep red and lace covered every surface. A velvet painting of a child with large eyes hung behind the celebrity on the bedroom wall.
Leon guided him to the correct placement for the floral masterpiece and they discreetly removed the brown and crispy delivery from last week to the hallway.
Leon seemed reluctant to leave and asked Walker, “Would you like Miss Peggy Lee’s autograph?”
“No, man. I’m good.”
Leon’s face fell.
Within the year, Leon was dead.
Walker never shook the feeling that it was his fault.
Interstate 10 was part of Eisenhower’s master plan to make it easier to move military materiel around to defend citizens from Russians and Chinese people. I-10 was the southernmost interstate route that traversed the entire country, originating in Santa Monica, and running through Phoenix, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans and ending in Jacksonville. If Route 66 were a beat ’49 Ford pickup, with body rust, belching smoke and Neal Cassidy driving, skeeched on Benzedrine, I-10 was a shiny new, two-tone ’55 Chevy Belair, gleaming in the Arizona sun, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon snuggling with bottles of RC Cola in hand.
Through most of LA, this highway is called the Santa Monica freeway. But locally, it is named the Rosa Parks Freeway between I-405 and the Harbor Freeway, but between the beach and the 405 it carries the name “Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway”. There’s one sign that proclaims this historical confusion.
Walker was having none of that. He insisted on calling it the “Christopher Columbus Transcendental Highway.”
It never caught on.
The L.A. flower market is the country’s largest, operating in one form or another downtown since the early 1900’s, organized largely by 54 Japanese Issei growers. The market has been in the 700 block of Wall ever since, commanding a six-block footprint within the LA. Fashion District. It opens to the trade at 2:00 am four days a week and 5:00 am two others. Thankfully, the market is closed on Sundays.
Walker was delegated the task of driving downtown at some unholy hour of the morning, twice a week or more, to collect the orders Arthur and Wayne had phoned in the day before. Though he was often half asleep or still self-medicated, once he walked through the gaping doors and felt the energy, he came alive. By 4:00 am, many of the Japanese vendors were a few beers into it already, a quart of Sapporo and a bowl of Udon noodles in their hands. This was a special career, one of either inheritance, or familiarity or tradition or lack of other options. Walker sensed a deep, deep pride. And, he relished those labels: “Issei”. “Nisei”. These flower guys were tough and cool but had an innate sense of beauty and quality.
He loaded the van he’d parked on the street and thought, “Fuck it. I’m going to breakfast.”
The Original Pantry was near 9th and Figueroa, only eight blocks away, and it never closed.
“I’ll walk. It’ll wake me up.”
A few blocks up 8th Street, a shiny ’63 Impala slipped along the street slowly, it’s body inches from the roadbed, windows down, five guys sitting low. The front seat passenger turned to Walker and aimed a revolver at his head.
“Where YOU going, puto?”
Walker dove onto the sidewalk and gasped for breath, suddenly aware of sirens, palm fronds in the breeze, his own heart beating.
No shot came.
Walker suddenly realized L.A. was not his town.
Lucy’s El Adobe was an institution in Hollywood, run by Lucy Casado and her husband Frank, in the 5500 block of Melrose, across the street from Paramount Studios. Lucy ran an unpretentious Mexican restaurant since 1964 that began to be frequented by politicians, rock stars, budding actors and directors and guys like Walker and his friends. Jerry Brown met Linda Ronstadt at Lucy’s. Don Henley and Jackson Brown hung out there. Gray Davis was a regular. Minor luminaries like Waddie Wachtel and JD Souther could be spotted.
Lucy had photos of Edmund Brown, Kennedy and Pope John XXIII on the walls.
Margaritas were a relatively new discovery for hipster gringos and cocaine was still fun. The belief was it was not addictive and lacked any side effects. It made its sniffers brilliant, creative, sexy and titanic.
Walker had one goal at Lucy’s: Meet Joni Mitchell.
He and his group took it all in, the chiles rellenos the Cadillac Margs, the blow, and the hipster spotting.
Lucy recognized them from their numerous visits, though they were mere Hollywood grommets by comparison. She was kind and personal and knew Walker’s name.
Later one evening Walker’s quartet of sippers and sniffers spotted Robert Altman and soared. One of the group had the idea to dine and dash on the check, though none were without means.
Two blocks down Melrose Walker went cold, realizing “Shit. That was Lucy’s. How do we ever go back?”
Apart from the woman who answered the phone and did the books, Donavan and Walker were the only straight men in the shop of twenty. Donavan was ruggedly handsome, darker-skinned and serious. His mother was Mexican and his dad was a famous Irish film actor best known for his portrayal of a philosophical Greek scalawag. Donavan also delivered flowers but insisted he was a screenwriter or a director. He worked hard at his craft but had nothing much yet to show, save for a dangerous alcohol addiction.
The two got along well.
Arthur and Wayne owned a regal home at 56 Fremont Place in Hancock Park that had been inhabited by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. They used the home for catered events as part of their flower business.
Donavan and Walker were part of the set-up and decorations crew, wiring endless strings of flowers to old bannisters and railings, placing, then re-placing arrangements and vases as the designers’ whims shifted. The bar had been set up early and it was understood it was open, something of a workers’ perk. They indulged.
The two did their part, leaving in the company van seriously impaired. Walker dropped Donavan at his car, a rusty old Volkswagen Beetle, and went home. Donavan drove east to Silver Lake on the Hollywood Freeway and managed to flip the car over the median, totaling it as he slid into oncoming traffic. He walked away and hitched home. The next day, May 17, 1974, he called Walker and didn’t want to talk about the accident but did say, “Look out your window, man.” 500 LAPD cops were in the midst of firing 1,200 rounds into a tiny house in Compton occupied by six Symbionese Liberation Army members. Tear gas had set the house afire and all six members died.
Patty Hearst was not in the house, though the cops could not have ascertained that before the siege.
Walker was confident the cops would have been more tactical had the hideout been a home in Fremont Place.
The old people along Fairfax intrigued Callahan the most. Their eyes were sad and the spaces around them felt cold and grey. They moved through the market and through the shops deliberately, with a quiet determination, wire carts with tiny wheels in tow.
Walker stood in line at a produce vendor behind a very old woman who fumbled with her pocket book, carefully selecting a dollar at a time, her fingers shaking, bony and covered with translucent skin like a Shanghai soup bun. He found himself becoming impatient, glancing around to find sympathy from others on line, until the elderly woman reached out with her final bill, exposing her wrist, on which were tattooed the letter A, and a dash, followed by five numbers. He can still recall those numbers.
She turned to him and said, “Good morning, young man. My name is Marie. What is your name?”
“Thank you for being patient, Walker. Everything moves more slowly these days.”
A month later, Walker borrowed fifty dollars and flew home; a place he’d discovered had changed. He knew then he could never stay. He had come of age.